When Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings play one of the Superlounges on the Friday of Essence Music Festival, it will be their third show in New Orleans in a year—unusual for a non-local act, particularly one on the verge of major prominence. They’re also possibly the first non-local act to play all three major festivals—Voodoo, Jazz Fest and Essence—in one year. This speaks to the breadth of the band’s popularity. The soul of the retro-R&B band is front-woman Sharon Jones, who boasts Aretha Franklin’s pipes and James Brown’s pep, but a voice all her own. Her singing is full of emotion and energy, propelling the group from one riotous gig to another on their journey from record-nerd darlings to international festival headliners.
At the eye of this soul-storm though, seemingly calm behind a perpetual pair of shades, is bandleader Gabriel Roth, a.k.a. bass player Bosco Mann. Behind the scenes, he is constantly busy, writing and arranging a majority of the songs, producing, engineering and mixing the recordings, even working on the design of the band’s album covers. He also co-owns and manages the Dap-Kings’ record label, Daptone, helping to release other retro-minded soul, gospel, and afrobeat records. Roth is also the consummate music fan, taking his love of old R&B records so far that he decided to make them himself. He recently took time out of his many duties to speak with OffBeat over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. We were scheduled to speak to Sharon Jones as well, but a family emergency sadly prevented that interview from taking place.
Gabe, what’s the latest thing you’ve been working on?
Yesterday I was mixing a song called “You Said I Can” for the new Sharon Jones album. Sharon came in and sang yesterday and we mixed it. The day before that, we mixed a song for a Spin magazine promotion, a Purple Rain anniversary disc, so we did a Prince cover for that.
How do you choose your covers?
“Inspiration Information” [by Shuggie Otis] and the Prince cover were not ones that we chose. “Inspiration information” was for the Red Hot organization to raise money to fight AIDS, so they asked us to do it, and for the Prince album they gave us a choice of three songs. The Prince song we ended up covering was “Take Me With You” from Purple Rain.
One of your earliest covers was Eddie Bo’s “Hook & Sling”? Who are other New Orleans artists who influenced you?
Eddie Bo’s drummer, James Black, is a big influence on Homer [Steinweiss, the Dap-Kings’ drummer]. But of course the Meters and Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe—Allen Toussaint is a big one. His writing, his arranging, his producing, his piano playing.
Were there specific producers from the Golden Era of R&B that you were influenced by?
If you listen to any of the Meters or Lee Dorsey, that kind of stuff from down there, there’s a sound and I guess it’s from Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint working together, and I’m not really inside enough to know who was behind the board. But those records are unbelievable sounding, and they’re very distinct records. Records from New Orleans always sound like records from New Orleans, and it’s generally pretty easy to tell when you hear a record that it’s from New Orleans or not. I don’t think it’s only the engineering; I think a lot of it is the way they play and the sounds they had on their instruments. But also the influence of the sound, swing and culture of New Orleans, and the second line and the drumming and the atmosphere.
Is there anything specific from those New Orleans records that you tried to latch onto and adapt?
I would say the guitars, the drums, the horns, the pianos, almost all of it. It’s not our only influence, but it’s something that we reference often.
So much R&B is region-specific. How is it you are able to aggregate all of those sounds into one unique mix?
I struggle with that sometimes. We’ll have songs where it’ll feel real Motown-y, and you want to arrange and produce it and make it seem real Motown, but then someone else will bring something in, more Ray Charles R&B with just a real different sound, and I always have a hard time finding a way to look at it holistically and make sure the album keeps a high degree of continuity so it doesn’t sound like a weird, all-over-the-place, greatest hits type of thing. Part of is sequencing, but the production, orchestration, and arranging all come into play. I think the one that we’re working on right now is going to be the biggest challenge that way because there is a lot of different stuff that we’re working with and some of it is really different.
Traditionally, R&B was singles-based as opposed to album-based. How does that impact what you do?
We release a lot more 45s than albums. With the change in the record industry, it seems like singles are making a comeback. You don’t really need to download an album, just the songs you like from the album. There are pros and cons to that, but it definitely brings you back to the pre-’70s record industry where albums were secondary and it was all about 45s. It’s a different approach, less daunting, because you don’t have to do 14 songs, just one or two. I’d like to do a lot more than that.
What classic albums were most important to you?
[Otis Redding’s] Dock of the Bay, [Al Green’s] Back Up Train, [Syl Johnson’s] Is it Because I’m Black? I like a lot of different kinds of stuff. There are a lot more great songs than great albums.
Did you grow up with classic R&B?
My parents always had oldies in their house, so it was Aretha and James Brown along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When I got to high school, I got into blues records, and started listening to more records and less radio. Then I went from blues to James Brown, and then the Meters and Otis Redding. When I went to college, I started buying a lot of old records.
Was bass guitar your first instrument?
I didn’t play bass until I was 21. I played drums in high school and my sister taught me guitar and piano. In bands, I always played drums until after college
Do you pay particular attention to the drums now when you’re producing?
No, I pay attention to everything. Homer is a much, much, much better drummer than I ever was. He’s more musical and has a better sound. I might tell him to try a different hi-hat pattern, but he’ll do the same to me: “Why don’t you try a walking bass?” It’s something everyone does to each other. I don’t think I have that much insight into the drums.
How did you start playing with Homer?
He was in a group called the Mighty Imperials and I signed them to my first record label. I was probably about 21, and they were almost 15. They brought us a demo tape that had some Meters stuff on it, and I thought they sounded best playing that style. I know they had been into some more freaked-out stuff before—Funkadelic and weird stuff like that. They sounded best playing the Meters kind of stuff. When my partner Phillip [Lehman] and I started working together and the Soul Providers broke up and we formed the Dap-Kings, we brought Homer in as the drummer and that was in 2000. We brought him on tour then, went to Spain for a month and England. By then he was about 17, still young. We’ve been playing together for a long time.
What is it about the Meters that make them so eye-opening for so many people?
The Meters had such a unique approach to rhythm and melody. And Zigaboo really broke the mold. He had such a different approach to drumming. The way their syncopation and parts fit together, there is something simple, but also unique about it, very linear. And as far as his stuff, it’s real heavily influenced by the second line. No one else sounds like him; him and James Black are some of the greatest drummers ever. Also, Leo Nocentelli had a really unique approach as well. Also, they were all instrumental but very melodic. They had a moving melody, between guitar, bass and organ. Pretty freaky music, the Meters.
How have you been able to avoid derivation to create something authentic?
We try to write honest songs and play them with a lot of heart, and try to stay away from certain clichés. When you think of these old records, they’re just superficial references, like, “Let’s use a wah-wah pedal,” or “Let’s call this song ‘Funky Cornbread,’” but beyond that, there is the deeper influence of “Why did that music feel good?” It was natural, it was raw, it made you dance and it expressed a lot of emotion. When you look at the heyday of soul music, you have a point where the technology and aesthetics and music theory culminated to where it was able to express a lot of human emotion. After that, things got weird with the record industry and music tech and disco. Things got us further away and progress became less progressive. We’re trying to use the same approach as the past, but to express something in the present, not to replicate what they did. Live instruments, and to record is as live as possible, and to get a lot of feeling from musicians, not just the singers. Approach it all with a lot of heart, soul and feeling. It comes down to the players on the record, but not as individuals—as a group.
Now that you’ve recorded with Al Green, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart and Syl Johnson, who is still on your wish list of people to work with?
Howard Tate, definitely I’d love to work with him. Tina Turner would be at the top. I love her. I think she’s one of the greatest singers ever, and I know that Sharon has a lot of respect for her, too. We listen to a lot of Tina Turner.
Anything in the works to get with her?
No, but if you meet her, tell her I’m looking for her. There are modern cats out there too, though. I think Raphael Saadiq does some cool stuff.
What was your involvement with Daptone’s most recent release, the Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens LP?
I was very involved in that; I was trying to make that for years. I first recorded with them in 2005 but wasn’t completely satisfied, shelved it, and then again in 2006 and again I shelved it. So in 2007 we got together again, and I’m really proud of that record. I really like how it came out.
Any plans to do a gospel recording with Sharon?
We’ve been talking about it for a long time. We’ve been working on picking out songs, so hopefully we’ll have the opportunity later in the year.
Why have you guys moved more towards soul and away from funk?
The strange thing is that people tend to separate funk and soul as genres, and I think funk is something that came later and retroactively defined soul. If you went to a James Brown concert, is that funk or is that soul? It’s both. There are some songs that are uptempo, some ballads, but it’s all rhythm and blues.
Is it still all blues to you?
All the best stuff is. It’s definitely a huge influence. The problem is so many of those words—“blues,” “soul,” “funk,” “R&B”—conjure up so many different things for different people. Those terms are so ambiguous that I don’t know how productive it is to define anything with them. If I say this is a blues song, one guy might think of Robert Johnson and another, Little Milton or Bobby Bland and those things are completely different. That doesn’t really help anyone.